King Of Condensed Films: Meet Chuck Workman, The Oscars' Montage Master

Feb 21, 2015
Originally published on February 21, 2015 9:20 am

Oscar-watchers expect to see certain things every year: fabulous dresses, maudlin speeches, montages.

You know, those assortments of expertly edited clips looking back at who died in the past year, or the ones that sum up each best picture nominee in just a couple of minutes.

For 20 years, Chuck Workman created many of the Oscar montages. He likens the task to making a fruitcake.

"You don't want to have too many raisins, too many nuts," he says. "But you wanna have plenty of raisins and plenty of nuts."

Workman used plenty of raisins and plenty of nuts in his montage of the movie Babel when it was nominated for best picture back in 2007. Workman boiled the 143-minute movie down to just two minutes, which he packed with about 50 scenes.

"You're looking for a flow," he says. "What is pushing this thing forward? What is making it happen?"

Workman's montages just wash over you, says Tom Provost, a writer, director and film professor.

"In the film community, everyone knows Chuck Workman," Provost says. "As an editor he's kind of a god."

In fact, one of Provost's favorite movies is Precious Images, for which Workman won a 1987 Oscar. It's a short movie that manages to encompass the history of Hollywood film just by using montage.

"His transitions are incredible," Provost says, pointing to how Workman turns a corner in the film from musicals to horror movies. "We see this great famous shot of Esther Williams in a pool and then we get almost an identical shot from Jaws."

Workman honed his cutting skills for years making movie trailers, for such films as Star Wars, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and The Terminator. Provost says you could see his skill in the Oscars' "In Memorium" montages.

"Not only could he isolate a movie in one image, but with the 'In Memorium' segments, he could really isolate a performer," he says.

But montage-making wasn't always easy for Workman — particularly best picture montages for movies he disliked. "The Cider House Rules," he groaned. "Precious."

In 20 years of making montages for the Oscars, Workman's favorite might be a 1994 salute to the people behind the scenes: gaffers, grips, dancers, dressers, even accountants. He remembered how Stephen Sondheim rewrote his song "Putting It Together" for an over-the-top number — part live, part montage — starring Bernadette Peters in a glamorous golden gown.

But those kind of theatrical, production-heavy montages are becoming Oscar relics. While "In Memorium" is not going anywhere, Workman says his style of elaborately edited celebrations of old, increasingly obscure movies has given way to newer media.

"They'd rather have Ellen DeGeneres taking a selfie," he says, with just a bit of a grumble. "What does that have to do with movies?"

Workman has not produced any montages for the Oscars since 2010. It was fun, he says, but he does not miss it. Most recently, he celebrated Hollywood history by directing a 2014 documentary called Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Oscar watchers expect to see certain things every year - fabulous dresses, kiss, kiss, maudlin speeches, kiss, kiss and montages, expertly edited clips that look back at who's died over the last year or that somehow sum up the best picture nominees in just a few seconds. For 20 years, Chuck Workman made most of the Oscar montages. And now, as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, he's something of an Oscar legend himself.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Chuck Workman likens making a montage to making a fruitcake.

REGGIE WORKMAN: You don't want to put in too many raisins, too many nuts, but you want to have plenty of raisins and plenty of nuts.

ULABY: Workman used plenty of raisins and plenty of nuts in, for example, his montage of the movie "Babel" when it was nominated for best picture back in 2007. "Babel" is 143 minutes long. Workman boiled it down to two.

What were the scenes you ended up using? Do you remember?

WORKMAN: Oh, I used 50 scenes.

ULABY: Fifty scenes in two minutes?

WORKMAN: Probably.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABEL")

BRAD PITT: (As Richard) You leave, I'll kill you. I'll kill you.

ULABY: Workman wanted to express the essence of "Babel's" interlocking stories - all very sad - set in Japan, Morocco and Southern California, and the cross-cultural chaos of movie's title.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABEL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Foreign language spoken).

WORKMAN: You're looking for a flow. What is pushing this thing forward? What is making it happen?

TOM PROVOST: In the film community, everyone knows Chuck Workman. As an editor, he's kind of a God.

ULABY: Tom Provost is a writer, director, film professor and self-styled Chuck Workman fanboy. He's posted his own montages in the manner of Chuck Workman on YouTube.

PROVOST: His transitions are incredible.

ULABY: That might be partly because Chuck Workman was for years one of the go-to guys for trailers. He made trailers for movies such as "Star Wars" and "The Terminator." And he won an Oscar himself in 1987 for a short that tells the history of Hollywood film using montage in under seven minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHORT FILM, "PRECIOUS")

KELLY: (Singing) Come on with the rain...

ULABY: Workman unleashes a torrent of clips - early film, slapstick comedies, historical epics. Tom Provost says he turns a sharp corner from musicals to horror movies.

PROVOST: We see this great, famous shot of Esther Williams in the pool, and then we get almost an identical shot from "Jaws."

ULABY: Provost loves Chuck Workman's In Memoriam montages for The Oscars, like this one from 2010, paying tribute to, among many others, Dom DeLuise and a clip from "The Muppet Movie."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MUPPET MOVIE")

DOM DELUISE: (As Bernie the agent) Hollywood, the dream factory, the magic store. Hey...

PROVOST: Not only could he isolate a movie in one image, but with the In Memoriam segments, he could really isolate a performer.

ULABY: But montage making was not always easy for Chuck Workman, particularly best picture montages of movies he disliked.

WORKMAN: (Laughter) "The Cider House Rules," I mean - you know, "Precious," I didn't know - what am I going to do? I have to - not only do I have to cut something, I have to watch the damn thing.

ULABY: In 20 years of making montages for The Oscars, Workman's favorite might be a salute to the people behind the scenes - gaffers, grips, dancers, dressers, even the accountants. The Academy got Stephen Sondheim to rewrite a song for the show. They staged an over-the-top number - part live, part montage - starring Bernadette Peters in a glamorous golden gown.

WORKMAN: We did a lot of her working with the crew, getting ready, pre-recording the song...

(SOUNDBITE OF 1994 ACADEMY AWARDS)

BERNADETTE PETERS: (Singing) Bit by bit, putting it together. I don't hear myself at all.

WORKMAN: ...Trying on her outfit. It was a lot of fun.

ULABY: Those kinds of theatrical, heavy montages are becoming Oscar relics. In Memoriam is not going anywhere, but Workman says his style of elaborately edited celebrations of old and increasingly obscure movies has given way to newer media.

WORKMAN: They'd rather have Ellen DeGeneres taking a selfie. What does that have to do with movies?

ULABY: Chuck Workman has not produced any montages for this year's Oscars. It was fun, he says, but he does not miss it. He recently made a documentary instead about Orson Welles. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE")

TREY PARKER: (Singing) We're going to need a montage. Oh, it takes a montage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.